From Farm To Fridge: Should Raw Milk Be Easier To Get?

Nathan Greenwood-FreeDigitalPhotos

For Pamela and Ray Robinson, producing raw milk has been an economic lifesaver for their small, organic farm in Hardwick, Mass. Back when they used to send their milk for pasteurization, they earned less than they spent.

“Being conventional dairy farmers wasn’t paying the bills” says Pamela Robinson, a retired nurse midwife whose husband is a fourth generation farmer.

But their new source of income puts them in direct conflict with public health officials, who say raw milk is dangerous.

Massachusetts legislators are currently considering whether to make it easier for boutique farmers to sell raw milk – a measure backed by farmers like the Robinsons and advocates who say raw milk is more nutritious than pasteurized milk, which is heated to kill off pathogens. They say proper farming techniques, including a more stringent routine of cow care, milking procedures and testing, ensure safe milk.

But health officials say that farmers’ good practices can’t guarantee safety, and the extra health benefits come at too high a cost: a 150-times higher risk of food poisoning.

“Don’t drink it!” says Dr. Barbara Mahon, a CDC epidemiologist. “It is one of the likeliest foods  there is to carry germs that can make you seriously sick.”

House bill 717 would allow Massachusetts farmers to bring their raw milk closer to customers. Right now, raw milk and soft cheeses made from it can only be purchased on the farm where they are produced.  The new bill would allow farmers to transport their own milk to their customers directly to their homes, pre-established receiving spots or through community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangements.  Before purchasing their raw milk products, customers would be required to establish a contract with the farmer they plan to buy from.
Pamela Robinson spoke in favor of the bill earlier this month at a public hearing held by the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources & Agriculture at a high school gym in Spencer, MA.

Robinson says she’s frustrated by the current law.

“A lot of our customers come from urban areas,” she says.  “All the border states have looser raw milk laws, so we lose business to them.” Continue reading

Radioactive Spinach? So Far, Even Popeye’s Risk Is Pretty Low

Crunching the numbers on radiation-tainted spinach, an expert finds that so far, the health risk is slim

When disaster strikes, it’s difficult to keep perspective.

For instance, I was walking across the Brooklyn Bridge when the second plane hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. Now, no matter how often I come across statistics about flying being safer than driving, there’s a part of me, deep down, that doesn’t really believe it.

Still, it’s helpful to remain rational. So hat’s off to NPR’s Richard Knox for doing the math and offering a reality check after some dire warnings from the World Health Organization about food contaminated by radiation emitted from the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in Japan.

Here’s Knox’s bottom line assessment, based on an interview with Peter Caracappa, a health physicist at Renssealaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. who has been calculating various radiation risks on specific foods, such as milk, spinach and drinking water: “…the risk of ingesting even the most highly contaminated Japanese foodstuffs reported so far is very, very small.”

“The long and the short of it is that we’re not going to be able to detect any statistically significant change in the cancer rate for anyone as a result of the events in Japan,” Caracappa told Shots.

The Spinach Risk:

Caracappa figures someone would need to eat 41 pounds of that Hitachi spinach to reach the nuclear power plant worker’s annual exposure limit. “That’s a significant amount of spinach,” he allows.

But what about cancer? That’s probably what most people worry about when they hear about radioactivity in food. Well, it takes 20 million becquerels to yield a Sievert’s worth of exposure; remember, that’s what it takes to increase a lifetime cancer risk by 4 percent.

That translates to 820 pounds of spinach – more than two pounds a day for a year.

The Milk Risk:

Well, nobody eats spinach every day. But many people drink milk every day. And one lot of milk sampled from the town of Kawamata, 29 miles from the power plant, reportedly contained 1,510 becquerels of radiation per kilogram.

To reach the radiation dose limit for a power plant worker, you’d need to drink 2,922 eight-ounce glasses of milk. To raise your lifetime cancer risk by 4 percent, you’d have to drain more than 58,000 glasses of milk. That would take you 160 years, if you drank one 8-ounce glass a day.